Theme park thrill rides, interactive museum exhibits, even an indoor ski area in the Dubai desert — it's all in a day's work for Thinkwell Group, a 70-employee company headquartered in Burbank, California, with offices in London and Portland, Oregon. The business of creating "experience-based entertainment" calls for IT systems that can support complex, specialized technology and deliver vast amounts of data on demand, even as the company scales up quickly for short-term needs or new projects.

PortAventura roller coasterSo when a server crashed and lost crucial data just before a project deadline, Thinkwell abruptly discovered its infrastructure could no longer handle the demands of the business. "There was no way we could recreate the files in time, and they weren't backed up on another server," Chief Operating Officer Joe Zenas says. "We paid dearly to have the data restored, and although we held on to the trust of the client, we learned a valuable lesson the hard way."

The company needed to prevent a repeat disaster by ensuring a complete, readily restorable backup. However, the company had other equally pressing needs. For safety and reliability, the applications and processes driving Thinkwell's attractions had to be available and dependable 24/7/365 with minimal maintenance. To accommodate frequent deadlines, shifting workloads and temporary employment spikes, the company needed a fast, affordable way to reallocate IT resources. And in a tight economy, Thinkwell needed to control its expenses—from staffing to power consumption—without affecting operational efficiency.

Scalability for shifting needs

Virtualizing its servers on a preconfigured platform allowed Thinkwell to address all these issues simultaneously. The company chose Dell PowerEdge™ 2950 servers with VMware® virtualization and storage software for a solution designed for a small to midsized business but powerful enough to handle Thinkwell's demands. The virtualization services come preinstalled and preconfigured, streamlining testing and deployment and minimizing errors for faster, more reliable performance. "If we had started from scratch, it would have taken our IT team months to research and test solutions with various vendors," Zenas says. "Dell and VMware had our virtualization plan ready to implement in no time."

To protect its data and scale its resources, Thinkwell automated its backups to Dell PowerVault™ MD3000i, MD1000, and DP500 highly available modular disk storage arrays, spreading the backups across the network. This ensured the company always has a recent, readily available copy of necessary data, even if hardware in one location fails.

The new solution enables Thinkwell to scale up or shift resources anywhere in the world on demand, without needing to buy and deploy additional hardware. The company's three IT staffers have less equipment to maintain, and the equipment they do have is more reliable and efficient—but Dell professional support is always available for troubleshooting or technical advice as needed.

“Bulletproof” network

Server virtualization has helped Thinkwell to minimize downtime, prevent business interruptions and deliver brilliantly innovative experiences on clients' schedules—all at significant cost savings. The company has eliminated any need to hire additional IT staff and cut its annual hardware spending by $50,000. What's more, the Dell solution is so much more environmentally efficient than Thinkwell's previous equipment that the company is saving an additional $120,000 a year on power and cooling.

Virtualizing has also accelerated Thinkwell's ability to bring on new employees and launch new projects, which IT Director Dennis Nieves calls a critical competitive advantage. "A lot of our projects ramp up really fast, so getting the business depends on how fast we can do that," Nieves says. "Our turnkey, preconfigured solutions from Dell mean we're always ready, even when projects need to be ramped up in any part of the world in a matter of days."

In addition, even as Thinkwell shifts resources among world-class theme parks in China, live-action spectaculars in Hollywood and attractions in Las Vegas, it operates more efficiently. For example, a Thinkwell client in the Middle East recently made the unexpected decision to put a four-year project on hold mere months before completion. Before virtualization, Thinkwell would have been forced to invest in additional hardware for new projects while infrastructure dedicated to the Middle East project sat idle for an indefinite amount of time, generating no income and costing Thinkwell time and money to maintain. With a virtualized environment, on the other hand, the company was able to pause one project, reallocate its virtual resources to other projects and shift them back rapidly when the client in the Middle East was ready to resume work.

In short, Nieves says, Thinkwell's network is now "bulletproof," with 99.9% uptime and a disaster recovery system based on Fortune 500 best practices. That frees its IT team to focus on more strategic tasks: developing new offerings, participating in new business pitches and making what looks like magic to the rest of us.

--Fawn Fitter is a San Francisco-based freelancer who writes frequently about technology and business, especially small and midsized businesses.